Author Leslie Charteris was born May 12, 1907 in Singapore. Christened Leslie Charles Bowyer-Yin, his mother was an English woman and his father was a Chinese physician who claimed to be descended from emperors of the Shang Dynasty. Leslie became interested in writing at a very young age and his first published work was a poem written at age nine. In 1926, Leslie legally changed his last name to Charteris (his daughter claimed he picked the name randomly out of a phone book). In 1928, when he was only 20 years old, Leslie Charteris wrote his third book and introduced his most famous character: Simon Templar aka The Saint. For the next thirty-five years, Leslie Charteris wrote more than eighty-nine titles showcasing his famous Robin Hood-like adventurer. The literary adventures of The Saint inspired fifteen films, eleven radio series, two TV series with a third now in the works, and a newspaper comic strip.
I first became aware of The Saint sometime after 1972 when English actor Roger Moore began playing one of my parents’ favorite film characters: James Bond, Agent 007. Through the Bond movies I discovered first Roger Moore than his long running British series The Saint. Then in 1978 – 1979 there was a whole new TV series, The Return of The Saint starring Ian Ogilvy. Ian Ogilvy, and my case of teenage lust centered on him, is actually what cemented Simon Templar, The Saint in my life. Suddenly I was on the hunt for anything even remotely connected to The Saint. I loved Ian Ogilvy so I had to search out other English actors and series. I loved the name “Simon Templar” so I had to look up real life Templar knights. I loved The Saint character so I had to find the books by Leslie Charteris. I’m not sure how many of Charteris’ books I read, probably at least two dozen. And I absolutely loved that adorable little stick figure of a saint that was the logo of most things Saintly. I even managed to catch some of The Saint movies. But I am ashamed to say that I failed in my quest for all things The Saint because I never knew about the radio shows or the comic strip until more recently .
The film, The Saint in Palm Springs, was one of eight black-and-white “B” movies produced by RKO Pictures between 1938 and 1941. The movies were based on Leslie Charteris books, stories, or outlines. The Saint in Palm Springs was the sixth of the eight RKO movies and was supposedly the favorite of Leslie Charteris and the one he influenced the most. Three different actors played Simon Templar in the RKO movies: Louis Hayward, George Sanders, and Hugh Sinclair. George Sanders is Simon in The Saint in Palm Springs. This was his fifth and last starring role as Simon Templar. After this movie, George Sanders was enticed away to star in another RKO movie series, The Falcon. The Falcon series was an obvious copy and rip-off of The Saint series. The enraged author, Leslie Charteris, argued copyright infringement and the resulting legal dispute between him and RKO eventually spelled the end of The Saint movies.
Fans of The Saint often consider the RKO movies to be poorly made and “hokey.” But this movie, The Saint in Palm Springs, is often considered the best of the bunch and George Sanders at his most believable as Simon Templar.
I’ve seen several of the old RKO movies. I saw The Saint Takes Over (#5 in the movie series) on TV just a few months before watching The Saint in Palm Springs (#6). These are pretty light weight movies. The Saint in Palm Springs involves $200,000.00 in rare stamps smuggled into the USA from blitzkrieg-ed England. Simon’s sometimes adversary, sometimes ally, Inspector Fernack, wants Simon to bodyguard his old friend, the owner of the rare stamps. When the old gent is killed, Simon takes on the task of delivering the stamps to the niece and heir and protecting her until the stamps can be safeguarded. Despite the murder of the original owner of the stamps and a few other people, Simon Templar himself never seems to be in any desperate danger. He sort of swans around, out maneuvering inept cops and crooks alike and getting his old partner in crime, Pearly Gates, to do most of the actual work. His alias as The Saint seems to be a pretty open secret. When a hotel worker exclaims about his identity as “the Saint, the modern Robin Hood,” Simon jokingly replies “Really, I’m a remarkably bad shot with a bow and arrow and I’ve never tasted venison in my life.” There is also a running joke about people “bopping me on the beam” (this joke continues into the radio series).
The tongue is firmly in the check in these movies. While there are crimes and murders being committed left and right, The Saint is never unduly ruffled for very long. I always get a kick out of the way Simon straightens his cuffs or fastens his coat belt and smooths his image. I also love the way these movies let modern viewers peek into the past. We get a view, not of the way the world actually was, but of the way people of that time would have liked the world to be: suave, witty adventurers solving crimes, corralling the bad guys, while converting the good guys (and even some of the bad guys) to his side all without a lot of undue fuss or muss. Of course, modern viewers do get a bit of a look at the actual world of the time. In the previous movie, The Saint Takes Over, solving the crime depended on a photograph and we get to see an entire sequence involving taking and developing old black and white photos. In this movie, The Saint in Palm Springs, it’s the whole portrayal of the Palm Springs resort: elegant bungalows, pretty pathways, visitors wandering around with long robes covering up their swimsuits. There’s such a hint of innocence: hotel rooms with open windows, wall safes behind pictures, valuable lockets hidden under sofa cushions, trusting people only too quick to give a stranger a chance to prove himself and who never notice the criminals picking their pockets.
Overall, this movie, The Saint in Palm Springs, makes for a light fluffy view. It moves quickly and it’s not long enough to bore and there are some genuinely funny moments. And George Sanders is suitably suave. But be warned if you’ve only ever known The Saint through the books because the movie Simons are nowhere equal to the literary Simons. Not as ruthless, not as honorable, not as witty, not even as suave. I’ll touch on some of the other versions of Simon Templar aka The Saint in future articles.
Unfortunately The Saint in Palm Springs is the only one of the RKO movies that is available in the public domain. You can occasionally catch the movies on TV or even buy them at select websites. But the Saint in Palm Springs is the only one that you can watch free at the Internet Archive. Click here and enjoy.
If you’re interested, check out my other articles on The Saint:
The Saint on Radio.